Civil Society Has Dropped the Rope in the Tug Of War with Business to Influence Government

By Charlene Houston · 14 May 2008

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Picture: Spiritual Travelman
Picture: Spiritual Travelman

The state of our nation is the outcome of a multidimensional struggle. The tussle between the polluters and the sick; between the under-paid and the over-paid; between the owners of wealth and producers of goods; between the greedy and the hungry, between people and corporations; between developed and under-developed nations – all culminate to create our democratic space for engagement.

As democratic institutions, governments find themselves in a tug of war between competing interests.  Or so it ought to be.

The South African government can hardly be described as one that finds itself caught in the middle of a finely balanced battle of wills.  This has resulted in an imbalance in the way that its policies and programmes are developed. These are by far more business friendly, than they are accommodating of the poor.

It would be easy to point the finger of blame at an overzealously opportunistic business sector, who seized the opportunity to build relationships with our government elite, resulting in an unhealthy alliance that has done little beyond buttressing the formal economy, which in itself is an impenetrable fortress for the masses of uneducated jobless South Africans.

However, this is too simplistic an analysis. The reality is that civil society dropped the rope in the tug of war with business to influence government in the post 1994 era.

Having spent four years enabling direct participation in government decision-making processes, I have been inspired by the power that some leaders have wielded in lobbying successfully for a better life.  However, I have also observed various opportunities for participation in local councils, provincial legislatures and in national parliament, being absolutely squandered because civil society did not prioritise them.

Civil society often calls for more space to be created for participatory governance. In some cases this appeal is not unjustified. There are many problems with the current space for participation and government itself admits that it has to do more to become more participatory.

But the truth is also that civil society does not demonstrate sufficient will to take up existing opportunities. Unlike the business sector, there is seldom a staff member dedicated to government business, while advocacy has simply slid down the priority list.

Our government, including its policy makers and implementers, is the custodian of our national resources. It allocates and regulates according to its stated interests, in addition to the influences it is exposed to. For every opportunity not taken by civil society, another interest group is making its case. The result is that lobbyists who do not represent the interests of the poor, often influence our government.

After 1994, the business sector in South Africa busily set about establishing relationships with government and setting up interest groups that would ensure their participation in the tug of war of competing interests. At the same time, a new wave of civil society voices emerged on the outside of the game; voices who speak in the media, at the barricades and from the comfort of an armchair. While they may have valid arguments and have spent considerable resources, these voices have not made a substantive difference to the lives of poor people. Notwithstanding, they ignore the tug of war and refuse to pick up the rope.

There are only a small percentage of organisations that have used the tools of protest and publicity to further their cause and these have certainly made an impact.  The added dimensions of mass mobilization, demonstration projects, as well as research and lobbying, are focused interactions to influence decision makers, and seem to account for the difference between these organisations and the rest.

Cognizant of the opportunities that the South African Constitution holds, they have re-birthed to take on the fight against business interests by working with government when appropriate as well as challenging, protesting and advocating, where necessary. These groups have undertaken various strategies simultaneously or in stages, always focused on the achievement of their goals.

As opportunities open up for engagement, it places demands on organisations.  Organised civil society, especially the NGO sector, needs to shed its victim mentality if it is to exploit these opportunities and do right by the poor.

Dr Frene Ginwala wrote: “Democracy requires that citizens should be continuously engaged in governance and interact with those who make decisions. Making a ballot and dropping it into a ballot box once every few years is an important element of democracy, but it is only one step in the process of building a society that genuinely serves the interests of its people.”

A new paradigm will enable civil society to see the power in numbers again. This is an old resource that brought civil society far in the fight for a new political order.  With a fresh outlook, it will become evident that the vote can be a useful tool, as was only recently demonstrated at Polokwane.

Between elections, civil society must keep the Constitution and the Bill of Rights alive by using them to bring about change.

The space for public participation is like a muscle.  The more it is exercised, the bigger and stronger it grows.

Houston is an activist, storyteller and public history scholar based in Cape Town.

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Verified user
16 May

Dropping the Rope

This is a complex issue. Under Apartheid we were an overwhelmingly single issue driven society. After 1994 many activists were exhausted and hoped also that now that fellow activists were in power, there would no longer need to be the constant up hill battle with government which had existed under Apartheid.

As time passed after 1994 it gradually begun to become clear that even in a democratic society with an ANC goverment in power, civil society organisations could not automatically expect benign support from government and that the need for advocacy, protest and lobbying had not fallen away. They were as neccessary as they ever were.

This has been hard for people to get their minds around, both within the NGO sector and within government circles some of which are quick to link, and therefore dismiss, such activities to racist, imperialist and colonialist attitudes.

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testing Verified user
21 May

Donors Have Also Been Reluctant to Fund Lobbying

This analysis doesn't engage sufficiently with the complexity of the issue. Its true that NGOs show poor leadership in this area, but donors also refuse to fund lobbying work, which really compromises many NGOs.

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